Why Those Normally Oh-So-Nerdy Statisticians Are Getting Down and Dirty Over Africa

Last Saturday, as international relations professor Morten Jerven was blogging about his upcoming week of intercontinental conferences, he happened to mention that he was looking forward to the chance to "sit in on the discussions of the senior statisticians from many African countries and get their views on what they see as the most important challenges in providing better data for development." Less than a week later, he was suddenly dropped as the opening presenter for the U.N. Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA) -- reportedly because many of those same statisticians had refused to be a part of his audience. Perhaps the cancellation should not have come as a complete surprise. After being catapaulted to social science stardom for his work on the unreliability of Africa statistics, Jerven has found himself the subject of similar statistician boycotts on another occasion before this one.

It's a matter of principle, says Pali Lehohla, South Africa's top-ranking government statistician. Lehohla has emerged as the leader of a group of African statisticians who are firmly against attending any talk where Jerven will be speaking. Lehohla claims that Poor Numbers, Jerven's recent book and most famous work on Africa's statistical tragedy, has "not been researched" and is "poor scholarship." While Lehohla doesn't disagree with the general conclusion that many African countries need to improve their capacities to provide representative country-level data, he assails Jerven for, as he says, failing to reference any of the work already being done by Africans to combat the very problems that Poor Numbers seeks to expose. Lehohla insists that his complaint is with the methodology and not the results. "We have no problem with decent research, we are also scientists," he emphatically declared in a phone interview. 

At the crux of the matter is the issue that many African countries are lagging behind in updating their calculations of domestic GDP. The underlying data for such figures are self-reported by each country, and are thus notably sensitive to institutional capacity. The going recommendation is that countries should update their numbers once every five years in order to keep data relatable to current levels of prices and inflation. If they don't, well, then you could find yourself in a situation like Ghana's, where long-delayed updates, known as rebasing, mean that when the data were correspondingly adjusted, the country's GDP jumped 63 percent "overnight" -- reclassifying it, along the way, as a  middle- rather than a low-income country. Did anything about Ghana actually change in that one day? No. But poor numbers do upset the international community, from investors to development practitioners, who make a lot of important decisions (worth quite a bit of money) based on information that they're not that sure of anymore.

Jerven's African critics contend that he's leaving out an important part of the story. In a response to Poor Numbers from Zambia's Central Statistical Office, the director (who Jerven says denied his requests for an interview) lambasted him for "sneaking" into the office, "exploiting" a junior statistician who was new on the job, using as a point of reference an old manual that was in the process of being revised, and basically being a "hired gun" with a "hidden agenda" to discredit African statisticians. The National Institute of Statistics from Cameroon took a substantially softer tone, using Poor Numbers as an opportunity to articulate the reasons for delays in rebasing. They contend that ignoring them exaggerates the situation and paints a false and sensational portrait of the abilities of African statisticians.

Dr. Dimitri Sanga, the former director for the African Centre of Statistics, sheds some light on this by explaining (as Jerven also did for Foreign Policy) how decades of structural adjustment programs severely strained government activities and left statistical services neglected. These days, most statistical work is done in the service of big donors who are concerned with social indicators instead of national accounts. Catchup on standardizing methodologies and practices across the continent is happening; slowly, but surely.

In response, Jerven, whose work has been extensively peer-reviewed and was invited to UNECA by Lehohla's colleagues, had this to say:

I do realize that the title of the book may seem like an undisguised insult to these statisticians, and for that I apologize. But I believe that openness and attention to this important problem in development studies justifies this language. For a variety of reasons, the numbers we currently use are providing us with a poor guide to African economic development.

As for the quality of Jerven's research? Well, it's the same as with many authors who work in controversial areas: "Either Lehohla has not read the book, or he is willfully misrepresenting my work."

Neha Paliwal is Assistant Editor at Democracy Lab.  



Venezuela: The Constitution as Graphic Novel

The overall effect is reminiscent of the Gospel of Matthew: the little children come unto Hugo Chávez. Resplendent in a field of daisies, the national flag draped across his broad shoulders, Venezuela's late president stands at the center of a group of adoring youngsters. They embrace him, gaze upon him, or simply tug at the hem of his garments.

Surprisingly, the aforementioned scene is not found on one of the government-issued political murals in Caracas, nor is it leaked footage from Oliver Stone's upcoming biopic on Chávez. Rather, this is the image currently emblazoned on the cover of some five million newly printed copies of the Venezuelan constitution that are to be issued to every Venezuelan school child over the coming weeks in what current President Nicolás Maduro has characterized as "a beautiful gift to our nation's children."

The book's cartoonish illustrations -- a bit incongruous beside the legalese of the constitutional text -- also show a colorful, sword-swinging incarnation of Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar. Chávez and his revolutionary compadre act out various constitutional provisions with the children while also fending off sinister (and apparently American) imperialist agents garbed in black trench coats.

So where does civic education end and political indoctrination begin?

This "gift," Maduro assured his audience during a speech at the newly-inaugurated Supreme Commander Hugo Chávez Frías Elementary School, will help children "absorb values" with the effect of "motivating their mothers and fathers -- through the love of their children and grandchildren's love for Chávez, who gave his life to make us free." Understandably, some critics have raised concerns that the illustrated constitutions may represent an attempt by the government to brainwash the nation's youth, forcing them to buy into the revolution's cult of personality and anti-imperialist paranoia.

There are also practical considerations that would seem to render this initiative particularly ill-timed. One of the symptoms of the ailing economy that currently plagues Venezuela (inflation currently stands at 45.4 percent over the least year while the currency trades at over six times the official peg on the black market) is an acute nationwide paper shortage. This month alone, several local newspapers have been forced to stop printing due to the unavailability of paper, and the latest Dan Brown thriller currently runs the Caracas conspiracy buff in the neighborhood of $80. Even toilet paper is shockingly scarce (although I shall refrain from speculating how this might be affecting local demand for Dan Brown books).

Meanwhile, with its 350 articles, Venezuela's constitution is among the longest and most arcane in the world: the illustrated version weighs in at just over 320 pages. At five million copies, the project thus accounts for a rather staggering grand total of 1.6 billion sheets of paper.

Given Venezuela's propensity for shedding constitutions, the books would likewise seem unlikely to last into the adult lives of the children who are receiving them. At age fourteen, Venezuela's current 1999 constitution has already lasted nearly twice as long as the average life expectancy of its 25 predecessors. (The government has already attempted to replace it once, unsuccessfully, back in 2007.)

Then again, the artist Omar Cruz, who oversaw the creation and design of the illustrated constitutions, has already gone on the record regarding plans for a second edition, promising to incorporate feedback from the children themselves and to translate the constitution into proper comic book form -- in place of the current version with its stand-alone illustrations.

The project is part of a broader trend. The ruling regime has long attempted to co-opt every symbol of state into the revolution -- changing the currency, the flag, even the name of the country over the last 15 years so as to rebrand them in its own image. By fusing the state and its ruling party, the regime seeks to make itself irreplaceable. Ironically, however, its habit of overreaching more likely decreases the possibility that any of its "accomplishments" might someday outlive it.

If past history is any guide, whatever political system follows Chávez's revolution will probably be just as prone to reinventing history as the chavistas have been. When Pedro Carmona briefly became president following a short lived coup against Chávez in 2002, among the very first acts of his two-day tenure was changing the name of the country -- by decree -- from "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" back to, simply, "Republic of Venezuela." As each new regime strives to create a nation in its own image, any constitution too closely associated with the old is likely to be the first thing to meet with extinction.

Unfortunately, there are some other products of the current system that are likely to prove all too durable: the class enmities fomented during the revolution, a well-deserved international reputation for governmental lunacy, and the vast amount of paper wasted on five million obsolescent copies of the constitution. Thank goodness for recycling.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez